I recently returned from a four day learning expedition with some coworkers. The idea was to take us out of our hectic, normal, day-to-day lives and submerse us in a schedule where we could hear and learn how others are innovative in the world of Information Technology (IT).
According to Merriam-Webster, Innovate is defined as "to make changes ; do something in a new way". How do you come up with new ways of doing something or make changes? First you have to be creative, which means you need to have time to think of new ways of doing things and bring them into existence. In order to be creative I think there is a prerequisite that is often overlooked, and that is, one has to have time to free the mind to be able to think beyond the here and now. Our minds have to be clear of stress and the normalities of the day to really allow ourselves to think beyond what is right in front of us, especially in the IT world.
To further emphasize this point I will share an example about myself. Most of my creative ideas will happen during low stress, mindless events during the day like when taking a shower, driving somewhere or just sitting on my porch relaxing watching the animals in woods behind my house. Why is that? It's because my body and brain are relaxed. I don't have inputs coming from multiple different directions. I'm not focusing on the next big project delivery or something critical in my family life. My brain is free to do what it does best...come up with creative ideas completely at random.
Some key takeaways for me from this learning expedition where:
- Don't be afraid to be different
- To be innovative you must trust and believe in yourself
- You need to have drive and curiosity
- Innovation needs to be sustainable
- Corporate Immune System kills new ideas
- Time needs to be protected to allow for creativity
I think that most of the key take aways I listed above don't require explanation but I will touch on a few of them such as, 'Don't be afraid to be different' and 'Corporate Immune System kills new ideas'.
Just like the immune system in the human body that attacks and kills foreign bodies, the Corporate Immune System can (and does!) attack and kill new ideas or changes preventing innovation. The question is how to not be part of this immune system. Personally, I have fallen into this trap before and been a part of unknowingly promoting it and I have also been a victim of it. In Michelin IT it was often heard "That's not the Michelin way" or "That's not how we do it at Michelin". These statements are innovation killers.
Why does this immune system exist and why have I fallen into its trap? I think it's because more often than not people feel it's easier (or safer) to not change. Change means taking risk and if things are going well, working well, why take the risk of change and status quo. Change can be scary for sure but not changing is an even bigger risk (and more scary) in my opinion. Sometimes we are comfortable with what we do and how we do it that change seems counterintuitive. This is how we take part in the Corporate Immune system. The reality is that it's the lack of change that is most damaging so we need to fight against the immune system in order to be innovative.
Michelin IT has come a long way in changing this behavior and we still have a ways to go but we are much better. It is much less frequent that I hear (or say) "That's not how we do it at Michelin". Innovative ideas or concepts are more readily heard today but they still take work.
I think that 'Don't be afraid to be different' is closely tied to the immune system point. If the immune system is working well then anything different is killed off. If one has too many instances of being 'killed off' then one may fear being different. How many times can you hear "That's not how we do it" or "That's not how it's done here" before you quit trying and just blend in? When we are afraid of being different then we definitely cannot be innovative in my opinion. We (I) need to resist the urge to not be different and force the issue of being different. Bring new ideas to table; new ways of doing things; new ways to leverage existing platforms or technologies to solve problems. I'll admit, it's hard to push to be different when you are challenged at each and every step but I (we) need to push through this.
One additional point that I think could use some emphasis is "Time needs to be protected to allow for creativity". As leaders, we need to help our teams have and protect the time to be creative, to think outside the box, to be innovative. It's easy to say that but how do we do it? How do we protect time for ourselves and our teams? How do we create a consistent, safe environment that will foster our greatest minds to come up with new, innovate ways?
What Can I do?
What I can do is allocate 1-2 hours every two weeks or monthly for my team. During this time we will spend the first 5-10 minutes just talking about nothing. Sharing silly stories, ideas, events, etc. Then, in order to kickstart this effort, I will present a current problem or pain point to the team and ask for us to think on how to solve it. Don't think in the context of what we can and can't do because of policies, partners, etc, but what innovative ways can we come up with to solve this challenge or problem. Work and support the team during this time to ensure that we are not participating in the immune system problem. My hope is that by starting this way we can eventually evolve to not needing a problem to kickoff the conversation but instead people are bringing innovative ideas forward on their own.
In order for this to work everyone has to feel safe to bring up any idea, which means everyone also has to feel comfortable with being different. Being different may mean bringing up an idea that doesn't follow the norm (challenges the corporate immune system). I have seen where using a virtual white board where team members can add sticky notes work well. People tend to feel a bit more comfortable and safe using this method. Give a defined time limit for ideas to be posted and then have everyone discuss their idea.
During the time that ideas are discussed I need to help ensure that we as a team are not reacting like a corporate immune system to our very own ideas. If that happens this cultural change won't take place and the corporate immune system will win again (not to mention that people won't feel comfortable being different).
To be clear, changing behaviors to not participate in the Corporate Immune System does not mean that every innovative idea is accepted. Creating an environment where people feel safe to bring innovative ideas forward does not mean that every idea will be accepted. What it should do is foster an environment where innovative ideas can be voiced, cultivated and ones that are accepted can be moved forward.
This learning expedition that I took part in opened my eyes to many things related to innovation and how to support it. It also made me aware of some behaviors that I have and that I need to protect my team(s) from if Michelin IT is to be able to be more innovative.
While I didn't touch on every point from Key Takeways above they all have their importance. Innovation that is not sustainable isn't worth doing for obvious reasons. If one doesn't have the drive or curiosity to find/try something new then that will be a barrier for innovation. Many of the IT people I know are curious by nature but they are afraid to be different. The reasons vary but the Corporate Immune System is definitely one of the reasons for this fear. Lastly, one needs to trust and believe in themselves. This goes for a single person as well as a team.
What I plan to do moving forward is implement ways to make my team(s) feel more comfortable and safe so that we have the ability to be creative and innovative. One way was mentioned above under What Can I Do. I am hopeful that this will spawn other opportunites for people in Michelin IT to become innovative.
If you have different ideas or way you support your teams to be innovative I would like to hear them. If you disagree on my position I would like to hear that as well.
A special thank you to @Pierre d'Huy , @Jerome Lafon , @Annette Rosencreutz , @Samia Riviere and @Christine Massif for making this Learning Expedition a reality. It really opened my eyes and my brain.